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Posted by on Aug 15, 2011 | 16 comments

How to blend in and avoid unnecessary attention when traveling

When I visit another country, I like to blend in with the locals.  The desire to live like a native and have an authentic experience is a big appeal to me.  Moreover, I don’t want to appear disrespectful, foolish and impolite due to my selection of clothes and manners. That would attract unnecessary attention which is not going to let me enjoy the new place.   In addition, there are other benefits of trying to fuse into the culture and daily activities:

  • Show respect and interest for the country
  • Get a better taste of the local way of life
  • Get treated better
  • Avoid entering an uncomfortable situation with locals
  • Mislead thieves
  • Avoid being typecasted into stereotypes
  • Be a good ambassador of your country

As you can see, blending in can have a positive effect in your travel experience.  It is extremely difficult (or impossible) to pass up by a local.  Conversely, there is a lot you can do to reap the benefits of blending in.

Here are some suggestions you put into practice:

1. Use neutral clothes

The key to dress for success while traveling is neutrality.  You can dress fashionable, comfortable and low key by adhering to neutral and basic pieces.  You have the right to dress as you want while visiting a foreign country.  However, you should consider avoiding some pieces of clothing in order to feel more welcomed in another country (plus all the benefits of blending in).  Here are some suggestions on what pieces of clothing to avoid:

  • T-shirts, tops and blouses with:
    • Brands associated to a specific country (“Abercrombie and Fitch” and “Roxy” for the United States)
    • Hawaiian prints
    • Political, religious and cultural symbols, phrases or figures
    • Flags or patriotic symbols
    • Sport team logos
    • Educational institution logos
    • Designs that may be considered funny in your country but may be offensive in others. 
    • Numbers (4 is associated with death in China)
  • Pants
    • Cargo pants
    • Zip off pants
    • Some believe men wearing shorts are too obvious.  Short are usually seen as part of the United States dressing culture.
    • Jeans are also considered too obvious by some.  I do not agree with this point of view since I have seen people wearing jeans in a lot of places I have visited. 
    • However, if you wear jeans, try to use a nice pair.  Don’t go too crazy on the distressed (cuts, paint splattered) jean look.  A friend of mine decided to wear a pair of jeans with huge holes in the knee area.  When local friends pick her up at the airport, they though she was attacked (they even thought a dog attacked her.
  • Shoes
    • Tennis.  A lot of people associate tennis shoes with certain countries.  I, personally, don’t wear them. I think foreigners dislike when visitors wear certain pieces of clothes with the improper shoes (in this case, tennis).  They are not necessarily irritated by the use of tennis shoes.  I believe it is fine to wear this type of shoes with the proper clothes (plus, there are a lot of lovely styles nowadays). Avoid flamboyant colors and styles.
  • Accessories
    • High white socks
    • Caps with logos or symbols
    • Any big, bulky accessory that brings attention to you.  A friend once had the brilliant idea of wearing a sequined, big headband in a country we visited.  A considerable amount of locals stopped to stare at her.
  • Other tips
    • Try to go for a neat look.  Neat and comfy can go together.
    • Beware of places requiring special clothing (churches, temples).
    • Understand the meaning of colors in the country you are visiting, especially if you are going to meet locals or do business.  For example, purple is associated with death in Central America.  Blue has the same connotation in China

2. Buy what locals wear

Once you arrive at your destination, you can take a look at what locals wear and go on a shopping spree.  Or study recent photos of your destination and have a better idea of what to pack. This is just an idea; I don’t feel like this is necessary. 

3. Don’t overdo the local look

On the other hand, exaggerating the local look can be phony.  Using a beret and a white and black striped shirt in Paris can be counterproductive.

4. Backpacks and other bulky items

Avoid carrying a big backpack while walking around.  Keep things simple and carry necessary items.  Above all, avoid the dreaded fanny pack.  I thought nobody used this anymore.  Then, I saw my uncle wearing one the last time I went to Puerto Rico.  No comments.

5. Camera

I like to take a lot of pictures but I know when to keep my camera in my bag.  It can be dangerous to have you camera hanging from your neck in crowded places, when using public transportation or while walking at night.  Camera bags with “Canon” or “Nikon” logos scream for attention.

6. Guide book

Cover your guide book jacket to avoid unwanted attention.  You can use a book cover or your own cover for this purpose.  Or you can simply stick a big post it in the front (and back) or tape an adequate piece of paper.  Try to buy a compact guide.

7. Maps

If you really, really need to take a look at your map, here is what you can do to keep a low profile:

  • Take a look at the map inside your guide book (see previous tip).
  • Keep your map as folded as possible.
  • Sit down to take a look.  This brings less attention than taking a look while standing in the middle of the road.
  • Ideally, take a look inside a cafeteria or other establishment.  You can also stand in an unassuming corner.

 8. Ask questions discretely

If you are lost or confused, your best bet is to try to spot a police officer or security guard.  I have always had good experiences with them.  If you can’t find one, approach people with children.  Locals surrounded by their families are probably not interested in taking advantage of you.  Be polite when addressing the locals.

9. Get familiar with local currency

You should have a basic notion of how to deal with foreign bills and coins.  Pay attention to denominations and colors.  It is easier to use bills f they are arranged by denomination.  Separate the foreign bills from your country’s currency.  Additionally, avoid using a calculator every time you want to buy something.  Before arriving at your destination, learn the currency conversion factor.  In that way, you can have an idea of how much something costs in your own currency without the need of a calculator.  Concentrate in the whole numbers and forget about the rest.  For example, in Argentina you obtain 4 pesos for each dollar.  Therefore, you know that 10 pesos is equivalent to about 2 dollars (30 pesos is about 6 dollars and so on).

10. Learn some phrases in the local language

If you are serious about scoring points with the locals, make an effort to learn some basic phrases in their language.  Guide books have the basic terms you should know (this is the minimum you can do but I encourage you to learn as much as possible). 

11. Lear basic etiquette rules

Nothing will bring more attention and hate looks at you person than breaking etiquette rules.  Things accepted in your culture are not necessarily accepted in other parts of the world.  Here are some examples of behaviors that are looked as offensive in other countries:

  •  Displays of affection
  • Bad temper
  • High voice
  • Putting feet over a chair
  • Touching a kid’s head

Please, show your respect to others by learning and observing proper etiquette rules.

12. Don’t be constantly talking about how great, beautiful and advanced your country is.

Well you can do it if you want to get in serious trouble.

13. Be confident

There are a lot of suggestions in here.  I mean, this can be overwhelming.  Always remember that attitude is everything.  Show you confidence by walking like you know the city, being nice to everybody and showing your good manners at every opportunity.

So, what do you think?  Do you believe blending in brings benefits to the traveler?  What are your suggestions to blend in like a pro?

****

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16 Comments

  1. You hav taken much trouble composing this post and it is very helpful. I am fond of maps and I do exactly as you say: fold it to the section I am visiting and looking at it inside a cafe, then walk on with confidence. Blending in makes travel so much more worthwhile. Well done.
    inka recently posted..L’Hermione and naval history in Rochefort/FranceMy Profile

  2. Excellent advice. This line made me laugh out loud: Using a beret and a white and black striped shirt in Paris can be counterproductive.

  3. But can I still wear my beret and black/white stripped shirt in other places?? 😉

    I agree about the need to blend in, but sometimes it’s difficult no matter what you do. In central London everyone looks like a tourist… but I couldn’t figure out why! Obviously because they were going to typical tourist attractions, but then I realized it’s also because they wore different shoes, carried different bags, etc. They are small differences, but I think a lot of the time you can tell even when there aren’t obvious signs like white socks and zip-off pants.
    Christy @ Technosyncratic recently posted..This Art Makes No Sense… but the Scones are Delicious (Tate Modern)My Profile

  4. Wow – very very thorough and in depth. Full of good tips.
    robin recently posted..NadaMy Profile

  5. I like to try to blend in. I like to think it’s safer for me, and it could lead to a better experience interacting with locals and finding out about great places to visit or activities to do.

    I never thought about colors before. That’s a good tip. Good thing I didn’t have any purple with me when I went through Central America.
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..The Cruella Conclusion: Lawyers, Lies, and TaxesMy Profile

  6. I’ve studied and read books on this subject for years and encouraged others to be aware. You have done an excellent job putting together this article of tips.

    Gestures are another area to be careful. Those that are fine in the U.S. are not necessarily so in many other countries.

    Thank you for all of your reminders and suggestions that are more current.
    Maralyn D Hill recently posted..Arizona Centennial Event and Arizona Blue Ribbon Pie Round-Up and Bake-OffMy Profile

  7. Great post! for the most part, i try to keep to wearing basics/neutrals as well. There are some days, however, that i’d just like to wear yoga pants and be comfortable. I’ve managed to dress the basic black ones up with a nicer tunic/top but i just know i’m toeing the line! 🙁
    jenjenk recently posted..Taste of Los Angeles: Taco Tequila TrystMy Profile

  8. Great post and lots of ideas.
    Unless I go to Europe or Australia #1-#3 don’t really apply to me. I am a big white guy that loves Asia. Since I stand taller than 95% of the locals, am twice the size and like cargo pants and blue jeans I’m screwed. So instead I stick out, talk to the locals, am friendly and have a great time. Never had any trouble #5, carry a small digital in my pocket. #6 and #7, I don’t use, instead I see where the travels take me. #8, I talk to everyone from the waiters, taxi drivers and store keepers .#9-#11 I agree and try to do as much as possible. #12 I usually don’t think about my country when I am traveling instead I think about where I am. I talk about it when people ask, which they do a lot. #13 I agree, don’t be timid, get out there and enjoy yourself.

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